Sunday, March 30, 2008

Reading in front of parents and friends

I used to dread the idea of reading in my hometown. The idea gave me the willies. Reading in front of people from my past? Or worse, my parents? I don't think so.

On Saturday I read at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, the town where I grew up. My mother said she wouldn't miss it, though I suggested it might be too much for her to go. It was strange but sweet to be standing up in front of her. She’s 91, and I am sure she was secretly terrified that I would embarrass her. I was a terrified, too. She sat there in her wheel chair, in the middle of the room, the sun on her white hair, looking amazed. Afterwards, she wanted me to read the poems for her again in the privacy of her own room. Then she had me mark off all the poems I had read. She particularly liked the poems about herself. Yes, she would say, nodding. Yes. That sounds like me.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Reading in Santa Cruz

I just returned from Berkeley, California, where my son is in graduate school. What an amazing contrast to Ohio. I don’t even know where to begin. The blue sky, the weather, the hills, the city, the people, the politics.

A man walking down the street in a purple mini skirt with a matching Mohawk barely gets a second glance. A political protest marching in the middle of traffic down the main street is met with approving beep-beeps and waves. Folks living in the trees outside the football stadium peer out from the leafy branches and then go back into their tree houses. Four policemen sit on a bench watch and chat nonchalantly. They seem oddly relaxed and happy. What is wrong with this picture?

I gave a poetry reading in a book shop in Santa Cruz. I was wearing clothes for hiking when I arrived. So I went to the bathroom to gussy up a bit. A nude woman was in there, taking a bath in the sink. She looked a little worried when she first saw me, but then she spotted the bag of clothes I was carrying and suspected I might be a kindred soul. Somehow we started gabbing as she dressed, putting on layer after layer of thermal under-garments before finally covering them all in a large dress and a coat. She informed me that the book shop was a nice place to clean up and change. No one had yet bothered her when they found her in there. Then she asked me a few questions.

When I told her I was going to give a reading, she smiled wildly and said she had always loved poetry. She watched me slip on a pair of black pants and a black silk shirt. Ah, yes, now you look like a poet, she said approvingly, suggesting I tuck in the blouse. Then we both ambled out, me with a bag of books I hoped to sell, she with about four huge bags of assorted clothes and blankets.

I always feel a little nervous when I start a reading, and this one was no exception. After ten minutes of waiting, the empty chairs filled. I went up to the podium and began my reading as I usually do, opening with a poem called “Powerful Magic” that helps to center me. After reading it, I glanced out, just beyond the circle of chairs. The bag woman was standing there, smiling widely. She gave a wave, a nod and quick thumbs-up. I felt a wave of warmth every time I looked up at her. And each time she waved.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Your Audience?

Every now and then, when I am in a writer's group or at a workshop, someone will ask this peculiar question. Who do you imagine is in your audience? I always want to ask the same question back. Who is in your audience?

I begin to imagine that we all have an audience we never know or meet. It's as if there are these strangers out there somewhere on the other side of one of those one-way mirrors. They can watch our every move, but we never see them.

As a poet, I never imagine anyone reading my work. But what if I did? Who would they be?

Would there be any dentists, for example? Should I include flossing in my poetry?

This next poem, I might announce at a reading, is for all the dentists in the room.

What about rocket scientists? Flight attendants? Entomologists? Members of the Secret Police?

If an oxygen mask drops down during this next poem, place it over your nose and mouth and breathe normally.

I think it would be nice to supply emergency equipment for readings. Flotation devices. Beverages. Seat Belts. Vomit bags.

Sometimes at readings, everyone is wearing black, and a few have shades. It's kind of a New York thing, I guess. Or a poetry fashion statement.

I would like to dedicate this poem to all the secret police in the audience. I know you're out there.

Maybe I would be careful what I said after that. I would read poems written in codes so that only a few would understand.

Of course that's usually not a problem. Poets are already known for speaking in code.

I think they are known for speaking to the night, the dawn, the birds, the rain, the snow.

But audiences? I don't know.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A few quotes

I have this odd collection of quotes on my wall.
Some are so old, I have no memory of where they come from.

Here are a few:

1. "I heard a voice through a cloud of agony and sickness. The voice was asking me questions. It seemed to be opening and closing like a concertina. The words were loud, as the swelling notes of an organ, then they melted into the tiniest wiry tinkle in a glass." Denton Welch

2. "Lazy but brown, she can only be discussed in telegrams. I always see her going down the Avenue of September 19 to the bridge, which she doesn't cross. The woman from Wallachia wearing her beloved fur with nothing underneath . . . " Gunter Eich.

3. "We are immortal. I know it sounds like a joke. I know because I met the exception to the rule, I know the only mortal there is. He told me his story in a bar . . . " Julio Cortazar (?)

4. "We prefer the idea of continuing with a new body, like changing our clothes." Thich Nhat Hanh

5. " A poem is a device designed to create a mood in the reader that is similar to the mood its author was in while composing it. Right --

Poem: Early Spring.
Morning temperature on the Hochschneeberg: 34 F
Snow falling, in the form of rain.


Young Helga, weeping, is scouring the terrain for primroses." Peter Altenberg